Zen and the Art of Press Management

What is the sound of no phone ringing?

The story I wanted to write this week was about judicial appointments. I wondered whether President George W. Bush, whose controversial judicial nominees have disrupted the U.S. Senate, has looked with envy at what his little brother has been doing down here in Florida.

I was going to point out how Jeb Bush had quietly put into place a mechanism by which ultraconservative judges routinely fill vacancies on the state's appeals courts. He accomplished this back in 2001 by having the state legislature change a few rules. Specifically, the governor was given the power to appoint the people who nominate judicial candidates, thus ensuring that all nominees sent to him for consideration stood on the "right" side of gay marriage, school vouchers, and so on.

As a result we have First District Court of Appeal (DCA) Justice Paul Hawkes, who worked for Bush and former House speaker Tom Feeney; Second DCA Justice Charles Canady, a former Republican congressman and Bush's general counsel; Third DCA Justice Frank Shepherd here in Miami, who was the local managing attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative activist organization; and my personal favorite, Third DCA Justice Leslie Rothenberg, who, while running for State Attorney, signed a Christian Family Coalition pledge opposing gay marriage and supporting religious displays on public property.

Fred Harper

That's the story I wanted to write, which would have included efforts to get a comment from Jeb Bush or a spokesman. That would have required the cooperation of Jacob DiPietre, who runs the governor's press office in Tallahassee. And that was a problem. Months ago I forever gave up on dealing with DiPietre and his staff.

I'd been seeking comment from Bush regarding Rothenberg's appointment. But forget about a quote from the governor; I didn't even get so much as a peep out of DiPietre. And I'm not talking about a quick call I made on deadline. This was more than three weeks of calls, sometimes daily. Nada. Zip.

Initially I was stunned. Then I was fuming mad. This had to be the most arrogant and unresponsive publicly funded press office I'd ever experienced. I thought back on all the contentious stories I'd written about government agencies big and small, as well as police and fire departments, the FBI, the DEA, the ATF, and I couldn't remember ever having dealt with a public-information office that simply didn't return a call -- ever.

Dumb idea. One quick call from some pimply-faced intern with a "no comment" and they would have been rid of me. Instead they became the story: "The Press Office That Refuses to Return Calls." Soon, though, anger and frustration evolved into fascination. I was like one of those people confronted by Chauncey Gardiner's enigmatic quietude in Jerzy Kosinski's book Being There. What did the press office's silence mean? Were they offended? Was New Times not worthy of a response? Or was it something deeper? Were they trying to tell me there are no answers, only more questions?

Maybe I was dealing with a real swami here, so I decided to learn more about this Jacob DiPietre. The facts of his life were easy enough to uncover. He graduated from Northwest Missouri State University in 2000, worked briefly for a newspaper, then for a congressman named Sam Graves, until Bush hired him as his spokesman. At the tender age of 27 he earns $70,000 overseeing seven full-time employees and a budget of $554,509.

But I needed more. I wanted to know what motivates DiPietre to make the decisions he makes, answer the calls he answers -- or not. A major breakthrough came when I unearthed a story about him in the January 2005 issue of the Northwest Missourian newspaper. DiPietre revealed to the paper that before his life's passion was serving Republican politicians, he had lived to ignite school spirit in others. In fact DiPietre was his school's spirit. At the university he would climb into a big fuzzy cat suit with an oversize head and transform himself into Bobby the Bearcat, the school's mascot. Whoa.

"Jacob wasn't one of those guys you would think would be a real spunky Bobby," John Yates, DiPietre's cheerleading coach, told the Missourian. "Once he put on the outfit, though, he wasn't Jacob; he became Bobby and was very outgoing."

Let me back up. Before taking on the DiPietre challenge, I was simply a reporter trying to secure a comment from the governor's press office for a December 9, 2004 story about Rothenberg's candidacy for the Third DCA. Did the governor know she'd signed a pledge opposing gay marriage? Did he care that this might affect her ability to hear cases involving that volatile issue?

When I didn't receive a return call by deadline, I shrugged it off. I was busy; they must be busy. The governor ended up appointing Rothenberg. More than a month later I called again in preparation for a follow-up story. When DiPietre's office didn't call back within a couple of days, I decided to keep a call journal. That's when I attempted to discern a greater meaning. (As an afterthought I faxed a February 15 public-records request to the Governor's Office of Appointments to review all the letters and e-mail messages people sent in about Rothenberg. Mainly I wanted to see if anyone shared my concerns.)

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